Film Room: Russell Westbrook puts on defensive clinic in Houston

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 7: Russell Westbrook
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 7: Russell Westbrook /

In the OKC Thunder’s most crucial game of the season, Russell Westbrook found a new gear to will the team over the line.

Before tonight’s game, one reporter asked Russell Westbrook if he thought this year would be James Harden’s turn to win the MVP. Westbrook answered with a cryptic “I’m not sure”. By the end of the game, it became clear what Westbrook actually meant.

The OKC Thunder badly needed to win this game against the Houston Rockets. Less than five days ago, the Thunder fell acrimoniously to the shorthanded Dubs. Against the rampaging Rockets, the stage seemed set for the OKC Thunder to suffer another epic collapse.

Matchup issues

Everybody in the NBA knows that pace-and-space teams are a bad matchup for the Thunder. Tonight, it showed.

The Rockets are one of the league’s elite drive-and-kick teams. Without Steven Adams organizing the defense, the Thunder are ripe for exploitation. Here, Jerami Grant should have switched back onto Clint Capela after Paul George got back on defense. Instead, he gets drawn out onto the perimeter, leaving Capela wide open for the lob. Melo tries to rotate over, but that leaves P.J. Tucker wide open for the corner three.

Hero ball

Earlier this season, Thunderous Intentions wrote about the Thunder’s true potential if  Westbrook somehow stayed fully engaged on defense. Tonight, Westbrook showed the world that side of himself, and it made all the difference.

Late into the game, the Thunder needed a stop. Westbrook bodies up James Harden four feet from the line, locked in his defensive stance. Harden somehow still manages to beat Westbrook and makes it all the way to the cup. In most games, Westbrook would have sagged off and looked for his help defender. But, not today. Russell Westbrook nips at Harden’s heels all the way to the cup, before dishing out the massive swat on his former running mate.

Wants versus Needs

The Brodie’s slogan has always been “Do What You Want”. Tonight, OKC needed Westbrook to want it more, and Westbrook delivered.

Off a harmless inbounds play, Westbrook jets in to nick the ball off Harden. In times like these, the difference between winning and losing can come down to a single span of focus and decision-making. Tonight, Russell Westbrook showed he was capable of turning up when it mattered most on both sides of the court.

Will the real MVP please stand up

More from Thunderous Intentions

In a post-game interview, Westbrook revealed that he told Paul George to give him the defensive assignment of stopping James Harden. With the season on the line, Westbrook stepped up, and literally willed his team toward the verge of sealing a playoff spot.

For some, the 7th seed is a failure, given GM Sam Presti’s offseason moves. But, facing the Warriors in the first round might actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. With Steph Curry out until the second round, there might not be a better time to knock them out.

MUST READ: Eight most costly losses of the season

More importantly, even if the playoff standings suggest otherwise, this win will go along way toward rebuilding the OKC Thunder confidence.

Tonight, Melo seemingly got back his shooting groove, and it was the bench that carved out the win for the team.

Most crucially, the team’s heartbeat showed that when the time came, he was capable of elite two-way play.

Next: Player Grades, roundup of huge win in Houston

With Paul George watching closely, that factor might just be the most important performance of the postseason.